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Harnessing the Diversity of Small-Scale Actors is Key to the Future of Aquatic Food Systems

Short, R. E., Gelcich, S., Little, D. C., Micheli, F. et al. 2021

A new framework for understanding the diversity of small-scale actors who produce the majority of blue foods consumed by people.

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Large silver descaled fish ready to be bought at the market.
Image Credit: Giulian Frisoni

Around the world, small-scale fisheries and aquaculture have an outsized impact on human health and the economy. Although smaller than industrial operations, they produce the majority of blue food bound for human consumption, over half of the world’s fish catch, and provide livelihoods for more than 800 million people. However, small-scale operations are often overlooked in food systems dialogues and face persistent misconceptions that all actors can be managed the same. In reality, this sector spans a range of geographies, cultures, technologies, markets and access rights that need closer consideration. 

Based on 70 case studies from across the world, this paper articulates the incredible diversity of small-scale actors, including their adaptive ability to respond to trends and shocks like climate change and COVID-19. A first-ever framework breaks down the main characteristics of the sector, offering a more nuanced understanding of their strengths and vulnerabilities. Results highlight opportunities for policymakers to design tailored solutions that both celebrate and support the inherent diversity of small-scale actors within their communities. 

Key findings


Small-scale actors play a critical role in food and nutrition security. In the face of increasing globalization, decision-makers must prioritize their social and economic needs and agency.


Dysfunctional institutions and markets, inequitable access to resources and opportunities, climate change impacts, and limited gender and social inclusion threaten the sector. Enabling small-scale actors to adapt and thrive is essential for addressing these challenges.


Policymakers must consider the diversity and complexity of small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, including how the sub-sectors interact, the influence of terrestrial systems, and the importance of longstanding cultural preferences and traditional practices.


Women are the engines of the small-scale sector, but they remain undervalued. Improving food systems requires a gender lens to realize their potential and avoid worsening inequalities.


Policies must recognize traditional rights and those of Indigenous people.


Longer-term action must address broader power inequalities and monopolies.

“We hope that by better defining the diversity of small-scale actors—both their strengths and vulnerabilities—we can help policymakers better design policies that support them.”

– Rebecca Short, Stockholm Resilience Centre

“This research comes at a crucial moment for small-scale actors and can help support their viability into the future.”

– Fiorenza Micheli, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions

“Understanding the organizational diversity within small-scale actors is the first step towards designing policies that can support them and a healthy environment.”

– Xavier Basurto, Duke University
Rebecca E. Short*Stefan Gelcich*David C. Little*
Fiorenza Micheli*Edward H. AllisonXavier Basurto
Benjamin BeltonCecile BrugereSimon R. Bush
Ling CaoBeatrice CronaPhilippa J. Cohen
Omar DefeoPeter EdwardsCaroline E. Ferguson
Nicole FranzChristopher D. GoldenBenjamin S. Halpern
Lucie HazenChristina C. HicksDerek Johnson
Alexander M. KaminskiSangeeta MangubhaiRosamond L. Naylor
Melba ReantasoU. Rashid SumailaShakuntala H. Thilsted
Michelle TigchelaarColette C.C. WabnitzWenbo Zhang
*Asterisk denotes shared first co-authorship.

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